Cuonzo Martin grew up in East St. Louis, has battled cancer and played for fiery Gene Keady.
So how tough could it be to take over for Bruce Pearl at Tennessee?
If a whirlwind can last six years, that’s what the Pearl era was. He brazenly blew through Knoxville like helium-filled hype that lifted the program to unprecedented heights before his hot air fueled the deflating news that caused a crash landing.
Six straight NCAA Tournament appearances, a No. 1 ranking, a No. 2 seed and an Elite Eight berth were all erased by one lie to the NCAA about a relatively minor violation. Pearl was fired after Tennessee’s first-round NCAA Tournament loss, and Martin was hired to pick up the pieces.
The former Purdue player had the ideal coaching resume. Martin inherited five scholarship players when he took over at Missouri State. His first team went 11-20, the second one went 24-12 and the third team – last season –finished 26-9 overall won the solid Missouri Valley Conference with a 15-3 record.
Now, Martin, who turned 40 in September, is at the base of another mountain. UT must replace its top two scorers in wing Scotty Hopson (17.0 ppg, 37.6 percent 3-point shooting) and forward Tobias Harris (15.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg), who was selected in the first round of the NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Martin also lost two other starters, point guard Melvin Goins (7.9 ppg, 2.8 apg, 1.7 spg) and center Brian Williams (6.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg), as well as leading shot-blocker John Fields, Josh Bone and Steven Pearl, who averaged double-digit minutes.
The leading returning scorer is 6-foot-7 senior wing Cameron Tatum (8.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg). Tatum struggled with his perimeter shooting, to put it mildly, in 2010-11. He made 27.2 percent of his 3-point attempts (34-125).
The starting point guard is sophomore Trae Golden (3.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg). The sturdy-built 6-foot-1 Golden began the Martin era in resounding fashion. He had 29 points, nine assists, two turnovers and two steals in 27 minutes during the Vols’ season-opening 92-63 win against UNC Greensboro. Golden, a former Arby’s Classic participant, was 10 of 14 from the field, and those misses came while going 5 of 9 from 3-point range.
Martin likes Golden’s intangibles, too.
“He’s doing a good job with his leadership skills,” Martin said. “He gets on guys in practice. He gets after it in practice. He’s very competitive, more competitive than I thought he would be. His overall game has been good.”
Joining Golden and Tatum in the opening lineup were sophomore small forward Jordan McRae, brutish 6-foot-7, 265-pound power forward Jeronne Maymon and 6-foot-8 junior center Kenny Hall.
Maymon scored 15 points and McRae made 4 of 5 shots from 3-point range en route to 14 points against UNCG. It was a positive sign for the 6-foot-6, 174-pound McRae, who missed 8 of 9 attempts from 3-point range while playing a total of 53 minutes as a freshman. The touted recruit, who has a 7-foot wingspan, was also suspended five games in a year-long malaise of a season that Martin hopes can be chalked up to immaturity and a lack of confidence.
Junior guard Skylar McBee has better form on his jumper than McRae, but, especially by his standard, McBee also struggled from long range in 2010-11 (22-68, 32.4 percent). McBee made both of his 3-point attempts in Martin’s debut.
“I think the biggest key for our guys is to play with confidence,” Martin said. “If you have a shot, take it. Just don’t take bad shots. … When you have a shot, you have to shoot the ball with confidence.”
The 6-foot-9, 222-pound Hall has shown flashes. He started three games and averaged 3.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 12.4 minutes as a freshman, but saw his minutes reduced by some 40 percent as a sophomore.
Maymon, a Marquette transfer who became eligible after first semester last season, is a bruising presence. But he missed 15 of 20 free throws and tallied 14 turnovers and three assists in limited action for the Vols last season.
There were reasons to be optimistic about a turnaround in the opener. Maymon made 6 of 8 field goals and 3 of 4 free throws against UNC Greensboro.
“I think he’s one of those guys who’s going to be one of the better players in this league at his position because he’s physical,” Martin said. “And for me, Jeronne’s gauge is not how many points he scores or how many shots he takes, but he’s a guy who can impact the game. I think he’s really our anchor on the defensive side of the ball. He can switch (on screens). He can guard smaller guys, bigger (guys). He’s improved his shot.”
Senior forward Renaldo Woolridge has never come close to justifying the hype he received in high school. Woolridge is a career 27.4-percent shooter from 3-point range who went from starting six games as a freshman to appearing in eight games as a junior. Woolridge did tally 11 points, eight rebounds and made two of the three treys he attempted in the opener.
He worked on becoming more physical in the offseason, and Martin might be a good influence to instill more mental toughness.
Yemi Mekanjuola, a 6-foot-9, 244-pound freshman, will likely have to provide post depth. Mekanjuola, who developed a reputation as a shot-swatter at Word of God Christian Academy (N.C.) blocked two shots in 10 minutes against UNC Greensboro.
Another freshman who could help is 6-foot-6 Josh Richardson, who averaged 16.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists for Santa Fe High School (Okla.). Richardson scored three points in 14 minutes in the opener.
Freshman point guard Wes Washpun also played double-digit minutes in the opener, handing out two assists in 12 minutes.
Unpolished freshman Quinton Chievous could red-shirt. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Chievous is the son of Missouri all-time leading scorer Derrick Chievous.
Martin had doubters long before he’d coached a game for UT. Some reasoned Tennessee couldn’t get anyone more established because of potential NCAA sanctions, which didn’t materialize. Others thought Martin was hired because he came relatively cheap. And others thought it was primarily because his serious, low-key demeanor seemed like a stark departure from the Pearl era.
Apparently among those not especially high on Martin was top-50 shooting guard Kevin Ware, who was allowed out of his signed letter of intent after Pearl was fired and he’d met with Martin. Ware eventually signed with Louisville, although he wasn’t eligible for fall semester.
Time will tell if Martin was an exceptional hire, a steady stopgap or a bust. But his chances of exceeding the success, excitement and heartbreak that Pearl crammed into seven years seem are one in a million.